Her Majesty’s presence in the sport played a major role in bringing British racing by far the largest investment in its history
Sunday September 11 2022, 12.01am BST, The Sunday Times
Maybe it is fitting that the odds-on favourite for the St Leger today should be called New London and be owned by the Dubai-funded Godolphin operation. Because racing, as much as the capital, has changed out of all recognition since the Queen came to see Meld win the oldest of all the classics in 1955 and so land the Fillies Triple Crown.
The Queen was 29 back then, five years into her amazing reign, a young, beautiful symbol of hope for better times after the privations of the Second World War. Meld was owned by Lady Zia Wernher, the great grand-daughter of Tsar Nicholas and wife of Sir Harold, whose South African diamond mining fortune had enabled the purchase of the magnificent pile that is Luton Hoo.
The Pathe News pictures of that 1955 race bring back memories, for me, of the French horse Cambremer’s victory a year later. That St Leger, also attended by the Queen, was the first I saw in person.
Doncaster may not have had the physical battering of bomb-torn London, but life was harsh. Yet the St Leger was the proudest of local celebrations and above all the miners’ day out. Looking down from the stands, the crowd was so packed that it looked like a sea of black caps set out before us. The horses were owned by aristocrats, business magnates, and landed gentry. Dubai and Abu Dhabi were backwaters of a little-known British protectorate called The Trucial States and most people’s idea of the Middle East was pickled images of Lawrence of Arabia.
Not until 1971 did Dubai and Abu Dhabi become part of the independent United Arab Emirates, but the inherent interest in horses and the British connection was to give racing its greatest ever windfall.
By 1982 Dubai’s Maktoum family already owned racehorses in formidable numbers and Sheikh Maktoum Al Maktoum’s Touching Wood became the first horse to take the St Leger prize to the Gulf. Since then his brother Sheikh Mohammed has landed it three times in his own colours and seven in the royal blue silks of Godolphin.
This afternoon the first four in the betting have Middle East connections. New London’s biggest threat may be the unbeaten filly Haskoy in the green and pink Juddmonte colours made famous by the late Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Frankel and which have twice been carried to St Leger glory.
To emphasise how times have changed, the only English connection among the nine runners is the 100-1 outsider Lizzie Jean, jointly owned by the Leicester firm GB Civil Engineering and the splendidly titled partnership “The Giggle Factor”.
The Giggle Factor’s pride and joy is ridden by Hollie Doyle, who won the French Oaks in June and with 136 winners already logged back home stands second only to William Buick in the jockeys’ listings. Back in 1955 women were not allowed to be trainers, let alone jockeys, and as the riders walk out to the paddock, black arm-banded in mourning for the Queen, the emancipation of women in racing will be one of the many things we can be grateful for.
Quite what the future holds for its royal connections is another matter. There can be no doubt that the Queen’s presence in the sport played a major role in bringing British racing by far the largest investment in its history. That presence is still felt: this season 43 horses have run in her colours on the flat. Logic suggests that there will be some serious pruning, just as there has been at Shadwell after the death of Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum.
The core of racing’s attraction, and of the Queen’s so evident enjoyment of it, is that every day is a battle of hope against expectation. There is always another race to look forward to and this afternoon’s is by no means a formality for New London, however impressive you take his Goodwood Gordon Stakes victory to be. For a start he may well not confirm placings with the Gordon Stakes third Hoo Ya Mal, whose Derby second is the best form in the race and who, since Goodwood, has won very smoothly over the full St Leger trip.
As ever, much will depend on the pattern of the race. New London’s still unproven stamina could be tested if the Irish challenger French Claim, owned by neither landed gentry nor Middle East potentate but by the football agent Kia Joorabchian, repeats the front-running role he adopted when finishing third in the Irish Derby. In that case Eldar Eldarov, who ground out victory in the Ascot Vase, also comes into the equation, as does Haskoy, whose connections have stumped up £50,000 to supplement her for the race.
Haskoy has run only twice, the second time at York three weeks ago and on the face of it she has to improve plenty to get in the money. But the way she finally got herself running from a very unpromising position and her extremely impressive final sectional times suggest that she might well be up to it.
Sixty-seven years since Meld ran home in front of our then young and delighted monarch, that would be something to set before the immortal memory of our now so lamented Queen.